When the iconic American punk band Fugazi started playing back in 1987, it started taping, too.
"Our friend Joey Picuri, who was a local sound man — or a fellow who helped do sound for bands — he recorded the shows," Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye tells NPR's Guy Raz. "He just gave us tapes of our first show, and he gave us a tape of our second show."
From the beginning, the band appreciated his efforts: "It was just nice to be able to hear the songs realized, in that sense," MacKaye says. "In many ways, you can write a song and you practice it, but it doesn't really become a song until it goes into someone else's ears — in this situation, the audience's. So hearing it in that setting, it's like, 'OK, this is a song now.'"
For a lot of bands, that would have been it; record the first show, show it to your friends afterward, then forget about it and continue living the dream. But Fugazi isn't most bands.
"Joey started to travel with us as a sound man," MacKaye says. "He just started to record the shows out of habit. We didn't really plan on recording all the shows, but after we had 50 or 75 or 100, it seemed like, 'Well, we might as well keep doing it.' And we ended up with 850."
Not 850 tracks, or even 850 hours — 850 shows. Fugazi, one of the most important bands in the history of punk, recorded every single show it ever played. But what does a band — even one with as fanatical a fan base as Fugazi's — do with all that tape?
"At some point, we were around the 300 mark, and the band discussed the tapes," MacKaye says. "And we were thinking, like, 'We don't need these tapes.' We didn't even listen to these tapes. The first shows, sure, we listened to those things. But when you're on a tour and you play, say, 60 shows in 63 days, pretty much the last thing you want to hear is a recording of those shows. It's unbearable! We just kept stashing them in the closet."
It must be a pretty big closet, because the band has ended up with more than 1,300 hours of tape. "We were trying to figure out how to get all this music out there," MacKaye says. Now that technology has caught up with Fugazi, the band has done just that: Fifteen years of shows will be made available to buy off the Internet, warts and all.
"These tapes are not all good," MacKaye says. "I certainly cringe at some of the stuff I hear, especially sometimes when I'm talking to the crowd. I think sometimes my humor is extremely dry, and a lot of times I would say things that I thought were very funny but ... I have a reputation of — people think of me as a very fundamentalist, humorless fellow."
'At Least A Dollar'
Fugazi is employing a pay-what-you-want strategy for this enormous library, so listeners can decide how much these hyper-authentic recordings are worth to them.
"They have to pay us at least a dollar — there's no free on this one," MacKaye says. But with their purchase, listeners get a true oral history of the band, riddled with moments that would have otherwise been lost.
"There's a really great show from Munich, in I think the early '90s, '93," MacKaye says. "At that time, it was pretty typical for the audience to say things like, 'Get on with it!' and 'Play the music! Just play!' I remember we had come back on stage for an encore, and somebody was lost or confused, or I don't know; something had happened and somebody needed help. So we were trying to say, 'Hey, there's a woman back here, she's lost and she's looking for her friends.' And some guy was just yelling, 'Get on with it! Just play!' And at that moment, I understood the dynamic, what was going on in this relationship, where he was a consumer and wanted to consume. He wanted sound. So at that moment, we just all turned on our guitars and started feedback, and it was a wall of feedback. And it was like, 'Okay, here's sound. You just want sound.' There was no actual engagement with the music; it was just sound they wanted.
"So it's maybe five minutes of just feedback. It was a totally surreal moment, and when I hear that, I can smell that moment. It's so visceral to me, but it's one of my favorites, because we go right into a song from that. I'm not sure that's even up yet, but it'll show up."
Included is the band's last show to date, on Nov. 4, 2002, and its traditional set-closer, "Glue Man." These recordings bring MacKaye back; in reliving the moments he recorded, he remembers the moments that weren't.
"The truth is, what I really miss is the six-hour drive in the van with them, because we always just hung out. We did a lot of time together, and those moments, those are very difficult to come by at this moment. Whether or not we play again, I don't know. That's just the way that goes. In some ways, this has been such an incredible project, mostly because I've just been sitting on these tapes for so long, and I think, 'Finally, here, everybody else have at it.' "
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz. The Washington, D.C.-based band, Fugazi, was one of the most influential punk acts in American rock history. If you were following the scene in the late-1980s and into the '90s, you were listening to Fugazi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Fugazi was courted by the big record labels, but rejected them all. And even without a major label, their 1990 album, "Repeater," sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone. The band's four members insisted that their shows be open to all ages and that the price of admission stay low, usually five bucks. In short, Fugazi never sold out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERCHANDISE")
IAN MACKAYE: (Singing) When we have nothing left to give, there'll be no reason for us to live.
RAZ: For almost a decade, Fugazi's been on hiatus, but today, the band is releasing a trove of recordings on its website. It turns out, between 1987 and 2002, Fugazi recorded almost all of its concerts and more than 800 will be available for download.
Ian MacKaye is the front man for Fugazi and the head of Dischord Records. He came into our studios to talk about the project and to explain why the band recorded so many shows.
MACKAYE: You know, we started playing in 1987 and we had no records out at all. And our friend, Joey Picuri, who was a fellow who helped do sound for bands, he recorded the shows. And he just gave us tapes of our first show and he gave us a tape of our second show and it was just nice to be able to hear the songs sort of realized in that setting, like – okay, these are songs now.
Then Joey started to travel with us as a soundman and he just started recording the shows just out of habit. We didn't really plan on recording all the shows, but after we had 50 or 75 or 100, it just sort of seemed like, well, we might as well just keep doing it. And we ended up with 850.
RAZ: Did you ever imagine that you would release them one day?
RAZ: You did?
MACKAYE: Oh, yeah. Our plan - at some point, we were around the 300 mark and the band discussed the tapes and we were saying, like, we don't need these tapes. We actually didn't even listen to these tapes. I mean, the first shows - sure, we listened to those things.
MACKAYE: But when you're on tour and you play, say, 60 shows in 63 days, pretty much the last thing you want to hear is a recording of those shows.
MACKAYE: It's unbearable, you know, so we just kept stashing them in the closet, but we also felt like, why are they here? What can we do with them?
RAZ: This is truly an oral history of Fugazi, including one of the first times you ever played one of your best-known songs live, a song called "Waiting Room." Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITING ROOM")
MACKAYE: (Singing) I am a patient boy. I'll wait, I'll wait, I'll wait, I'll wait. My time is water down a drain. Everybody's moving, everybody's moving, everybody's moving, moving, moving, moving. Please don't leave me to wait in the waiting room. Sitting outside of town. Everybody's always down because they can't wait.
RAZ: One of the things that you guys were known for was stopping shows if the mosh pit became too violent, if people were - you know, if you felt like people were getting hurt, you would just stop playing until - and that's also reflected on here. You hear many moments, actually, where you just stop playing.
RAZ: And you just tell people to cut it out.
MACKAYE: Yeah. I love you. You love me. Stop hurting these people in the front. You, stop. You, I love you. Stop. Are we squared up, sir?
One of the first - we have a comment section for each show and one of the first comments we had was from a fellow who said, this show was significant because the first show I went to and it was the night I broke my back. And I think if you're in a band and you're at a point of gathering and that point of gathering, on some occasions, has resulted in people being permanently injured, sometimes never walking again, it's pretty heavy.
And people have, over the years, said, like, you're trying to control the audience. You guys tell us what to do. That's not the case. We're just good hosts. And if you're sitting at a dinner table with me and someone started to stab you with a butter knife, I would stop that, too.
RAZ: Do you hear - have you heard recordings that take you back to a moment that...
MACKAYE: Definitely. Yeah, yeah.
MACKAYE: There's a really great show from Munich in, I think, early '90s, '93, and at that time, it was pretty typical for the audience to say things like, get on it with it and play the music. Just play. And I remember we had come back on stage for an encore and somebody that was lost or was - I don't know. Something had happened and somebody needed help, so we were trying to say, hey, by the way, there's a woman back here. She's looking for her friends. And some guy was just yelling, get on with it. Just play. Just play. Just play.
And, at that moment, I understood the sort of dynamic or, you know, what was going on in this relationship where he was, like, a consumer and wanted to consume. He wanted sound, so at that moment, we just all just turned on our guitars and just started feedback and it was just a wall of feedback.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR FEEDBACK)
MACKAYE: It was a totally surreal moment and when I hear that, I can smell that moment, it was so visceral to me. But it's one of my favorites because we go right into a song out of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Did you know, when you started playing "Glue Man" on November 4th, 2002, that that would be the last time you'd perform as Fugazi?
RAZ: You had no idea?
MACKAYE: No. And I still don't know that.
RAZ: I mean, it's been - I should say - for almost a decade.
MACKAYE: Well, we knew it was the last song of the tour and that was kind of a tradition for us. We knew it was our last show of the tour and, if you check our tours, on those shows, the last show, we almost always played "Glue Man."
MACKAYE: I spent it all. That's the lyric.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLUE MAN")
MACKAYE: (Singing) I spent it all. All, spent it all.
RAZ: Does any part of this process and this experience make you think maybe it's time to perform again as a band?
MACKAYE: Not specifically. I mean, people often say, do you miss, you know, playing with those guys? And, sure, I miss that. But, really, the truth is that what I really miss is the six-hour drive in the van with them because we always just hung out. We did a lot of time together and those moments - those are very difficult to come by at this moment. Whether or not we play again, I don't know. That's just the way that goes.
In some ways, this has been such an incredible project, mostly because I've just been sitting on these tapes for so long and I think, finally, here, like everybody else have at it because they weren't doing me any good sitting in a closet.
RAZ: Ian MacKaye, thank you.
RAZ: That's Ian MacKaye from the band Fugazi. The first 130 of their archived live shows are being released today. You can hear a Fugazi show and get a guide to the full archive at NPRMusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.